Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing (3): Genesis 2:4-3:24

Elohim Creating Adam, Blake
Elohim Creating Adam, Blake

If you’re wondering why I’m not using any Hubble telescope images for today’s creation post, it is because in The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, William P. Brown calls the Bible’s second creation story, “The Drama of Dirt.” The transcendent, cosmic perspective of Genesis 1 changes when you turn the page and begin to read chapter 2. We’ll continue to learn from Brown’s insights as we consider this narrative, adding to them our own observations and remarks.

Creation comes crashing down to Earth in Genesis 2:4b-3:24. God exchanges the royal decree for a garden spade. The God from on high becomes the God on the ground, a down-and-dirty deity. Known as the Yahwist account (J) for its prominent use of the divine name YHWH, this second creation story is altogether different in tone, content, and scope from the first. Compared to the lofty liturgical cadences of its canonical predecessor, this account reads more a Greek tragedy. Methodical progression gives way to narrative bumps and twists. While the Priestly account teeters on the edge of abstraction, the Yahwist story, with its focus on the family, revels in messy drama, the drama of dirt. (p. 79)

Brown specifies some of the big differences in this account from the one in Genesis 1:

  • It follows a different literary pattern: four scenes, each containing parallel elements, in contrast to the seven-day scheme of chapter 1.
  • God’s actions are presented as more improvisational, rather than meticulously executed.
  • Each scene depicts a deficiency, followed by God’s response. Instead of everything being “good” as in Gen. 1, God here responds to the “not good.”
  • God is therefore not just an Actor, as in Gen. 1, but One who reacts to variables in creation.

SCENE ONE: Genesis 2:4-17
Brown suggests that both Genesis creation accounts begin with a situation of lack, though the “darkness” and “deep” of chapter 1 are now portrayed in dry and barren terms. [John Sailhamer disputes this interpretation, suggesting that “no rain” and “no one to work the soil” anticipate later situations.] The human, who is created first in this account and not at the end of the creative process, is seen, not in the likeness of God but in the imago terrae, the image of earth. His name, “Adam” is a play on the word “ground” (adamah). The earthling is made from the earth, the groundling from the ground. God places him in a lush garden, but this is no Paradise of pure leisure, for God gives the human work to do there. Yet the human is not a mere slave of the gods as in Babylonian accounts. A coworker with God, he tends the garden God himself planted as a priestly steward of God’s property. The ’ādām is free but is not, however, autonomous, for God forbids him to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.”

Satan Exulting over Eve, Blake

SCENE TWO: Genesis 2:18-25
For the first time in Genesis, we read “not good.” The human does not have a corresponding partner. The animals whom he names live with him in a sort of community, but there is no match or mate for him. So God gets his hands dirty (or bloody) again, this time performing divine surgery and fashioning a partner for Adam out of his own flesh and bone. By “splitting the ’ādām,” God forms a partner for the man, so that they may have “a community of correspondence, enjoying mutual companionship and help” (p. 84). Brown comments:

With the creation of the woman, the man now embodies a dual identity: he remains kin to the ground in his humanity as he has become kin to the woman in his gendered identity. As the ground is receptive to the ’ādām’s labors, the ’ādām receives the fruits of the ground. And so, analogously, the man and the woman are receptive to each other. No subordination pertains in the garden. The ’ādām’s service to the garden is rooted in his kinship with the ground. Marriage, according to the Yahwist, is founded on the kinship intimacy of partnership and companionship (2:24). Life in the garden is one of fruitful work, abundance, and intimate companionship. In the garden there is neither fear nor shame, even before God. These are “lacks” that are meant to endure. But, alas, they do not. (p. 84)

SCENE THREE: Genesis 3:1-7
The “lack” in the third scene is an perceived one, an idea generated in words by the serpent in order to tempt the first couple to act apart from God. Divine wisdom and what Brown calls “self-enhancement of the highest order” could be theirs simply by eating what God had prohibited. Eve and Adam “who was with her” (3:6) take the forbidden fruit. Immediately they are thrust from the world of innocence to that of experience, an adult world in which nakedness now brings shame and futile attempts to hide secret transgressions.

God Judging Adam, Blake
God Judging Adam, Blake

SCENE FOUR: Genesis 8-24
The first couple reap the consequences of their disobedience. Calling them out of hiding, God confronts them and then must listen to their version of the “blame game.” God addresses each party and announces that they will henceforth live in conditions that signify separation from God.

The curses that cycle through the various perpetrators are not punishments, however. According to Claus Westermann, they are “states that reflect the condition of separation from God,” and I would add: states that reflect the condition of life as was known by the author. The curses serve to explicate certain well-known painful aspects of life. They bring the primordial world of the text into the author’s contemporary world of pain and conflict. The curse delivers, in short, an etiology, an account that explains the human (and serpentine) condition as a primordial event. The serpent is condemned to a life of slithering and suffering human hostility. The woman faces the pangs of childbirth and subordination. The most extensive curse is reserved for the man: he too will face “labor pains,” the pangs of hard labor on the ground. His hardship involves the backbreaking work of cultivating crops on a resistant soil. “No pain, no grain” is the curse’s motto. The groundling is no longer the ground’s kin but slave. Henceforth, the man shall lead a life of enslavement that is fully consummated in his death, when the ’ādām returns to the ’ădāmāh, when the human and the humus become one. His genesis was an act of separation; his death marks a reunion. (p. 88)

Brown also notes perceptively that what God had provided as life-sustaining and nourishing blessing in the garden now become the sources of conflict and oppression east of Eden: “The woman becomes subordinated to the man; the groundling becomes painfully bound to the ground” (p. 88).

And in the end, exile. Innocence lost, the couple is now banished lest they eat from the Tree of Life. They did not lose an immortality which they already possessed, but they did lose the chance to gain it. God graciously clothes them, but after casting them out, he bars the door and places a divine guard. God is not done with Adam and Eve and their family, however. Brown notes that God continues to deal with them in chapter 4 — helping Eve in childbirth, interacting with Cain and then protecting him. Chapter 4 is part of this “creation” story too — life goes on beyond the garden.

• • •

Once more, William P. Brown reminds us that it is important to remember the historical setting of the diaspora Jews for whom this story was shaped and included in the Hebrew Bible. They had experienced their own Exile, their own banishment from a garden paradise. Even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the world’s seven wonders, could not compare in their eyes to the land and the kingdom God had given them. Yet there they were, “by the rivers of Babylon,” longing for home.

The historical background of this ancient tale draws from ancient Israel’s experiment with monarchy. Every king had his garden, and Jerusalem’s king was no exception. On the west bank of the Kidron valley, east of the fortified city, was the “king’s garden,” watered by the Gihon spring. The royal garden of Jerusalem, the city of God (see Pss 46:4; 87:3), was in some sense a replication of, or perhaps the basis for, the primordial garden of Eden in Genesis. Assyrian annals indicate that kings were as proud of their horticultural expertise as they were of their prowess on the battlefield. They frequently transplanted the exotic botanical species of conquered territories, boasting that they thrived better under their green thumb than in their natural habitats. Many Akkadian and Sumerian rulers assumed the epithets “gardener” and “farmer,” for their kingdom was their garden, and their ordained task was to cultivate it. The royal garden was the kingdom in miniature. (p. 91)

Though Brown does not emphasize this aspect of the second creation account, this narrative of Adam and Eve tells the story of Israel in miniature. Created by God, placed in a good land, and called to be God’s coworkers, Israel received God’s instructions and God’s promises regarding what would happen if they kept his word (blessing) and what would transpire if they did not (curse). In that beautiful place called “The Promised Land,” with the lovely royal gardens in Jerusalem, the kings and people of Israel listened to the voice of the land’s inhabitants (the Canaanites were the serpent), forsook God’s word, and sought their own wisdom. As a result, they went into exile and became reliant upon God’s protection in a foreign land to the east.

In Genesis 2, God created Israel. And Israel created a host of problems for herself.

15 thoughts on “Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing (3): Genesis 2:4-3:24

  1. I don’t have an especially detailed knowledge of Blake. Your description matches what I do understand of his views.

    Nonetheless, I find his pieces stunningly and moving. As you say, he does not express my theological views, but he somehow perceives and expresses aspects of the human dilemma – and it resonates. Perhaps one problem with a lot of the Biblical imagery is that its so bound to its iconography, that it’s hard to do much overly bold or brash with it, unless of course one is radical enough not be hampered by the iconography.


  2. No, I didn’t take your comment as an argument, Robert. I appreciate your insights, and I hope that more will comment on the art we put up. I was just thinking the other day that a lot of time and thought goes into choosing it, with the hope that it will communicate in a way that is complementary to each post. I’m no art expert, but I do love it and hope our choices will be effective in prompting both contemplation and conversation.


  3. I don’t mean to argue with your choice of art. Blake’s art is evocative and powerful because it pushes against the normal iconographic themes, and because it communicates often suppressed and negated religious intuitions and experiences with traditional materials. Perhaps theology needs to come closer to his vision to make sense out of some of the irrefutable evidence about our origins that science has given us. Perhaps the idea of transcendent fall needs to be revived.

    My outline of Blake’s beliefs is overly simplistic. The young Blake believed in following impulse above any moral or religious dictate; the later Blake came to appreciate the idea of freely chosen self-sacrifice and discipline in the service of love. Blake also had a more complex relationship to the idea of science. He did, however, strongly dislike Newton and his discoveries, most of all being repelled by the habit science has of conceptually and/or physically disassembling phenomenon to get at the reality behind them, which Blake considered positively Satanic.


  4. I find it ironic that Blake’s art is used as illustration for a post that supports the idea that creation is good, and in reviewing a book that supports the idea that science and theology share a common base experience of wonder in contemplating the created world.

    The image of Elohim Creating Adam bespeaks, in its tumultuous darkness and tortuousness, in its heaviness, Blake’s belief that the moment of creation is the also the moment of the fall. Elohim’s eyes stare blindly off into the distance, because Blake believed that the creator, who is a demiurge and not the true God, acts in blindness and ignorance, and the world he creates is one of ignorance, blindness, enslavement and oppression. Adam lays back immobile, as if stricken, his brow and eyes heavy with pain and distress, the lower part of his body wrapped around by the serpent that already corrupts his spirit, that in fact is a part of his being. And it seems as if Adam is being pressed back into the earth by Elohim rather than brought out of it, as if he is being crucified against the ground of creation. In one of the other depictions, Satan is exulting over Eve because she was created, and so delivered into his realm, which is the realm of physical existence.

    Blake’s art depicting the creation of Adam and Eve is not a celebration of wonder, but an expression of horror, and a visual portent of things to come when the human race is misled by the blind demiurge into a religion of oppression and lies and ignorance. I’m sure that the he would be amused to see his art deployed as illustration of the wonder of creation, and especially amused to see the connection with a book purporting to connect the disciplines of theology and science, both of which he abhorred. He would also be pleased, because he would be certain that his art would work subversively against the intention of the post and the book, and help at least some viewing it to move toward what he considered a true understanding of the Satanic nature of creation.

    I must confess that I sometimes think Blake must have been correct in his views, because his subversive art always speaks so powerfully to my spirit, more powerfully than the traditional iconography of creation ever has.


  5. “His beyondness walks in the cool breeze of the Garden, and finds Adam and Eve in their imperfections, encountering them in their sin not only as judgment, but as protective concern and constant presence.”

    I like this take on the text, especially set next to the emphases in the first account.


  6. Thanks, Chaplain Mike. I am enjoying your summaries of Brown’s book.

    I like the approach to reading these texts as narratives that are addressing the specific problems and questions of the exiled community. It allows us to ask what may have resonated most strongly to the writers and readers of the time, which in turn helps to ask, “What can the text mean for us now?” It expands, rather than limits, the text’s relevance. I don’t think it boxes us into saying text must be considered allegorical, or straight historical chronicle.

    Without some help from the context, we are more likely to miss poignant meanings. Likewise, the evangelical conversation over Genesis is so easily bogged down by our contemporary wrangling over the historical/scientific veracity of events and details that its easy to get caught in that presentist debate and never get to the more interesting questions. (Not that historical questions are uninteresting or inconsequential — its just that this was not the first thing on the minds of every reader, at other times.)

    I also enjoyed your Blake plates. You prompted my husband and I were trading Blake paintings and engravings over internet chat throughout the day. Good times! I love how evocative Blake’s art is.


  7. @ Chaplain MIKE,
    thank you for your reply, in my own Catholic faith there seems a much more ‘acceptable’ level of connections between the OT and the NT . . . between the Judaic traditions and the early Christian practices

    but then came the influences that wanted to cut those ties . . . I’m thinking of the teachings of Marcion, which I understand is a form of Gnosticism, and I have wondered if some of those ideas have found their way into the evangelical theologies of today (?) . . . particularly in the concepts of ‘baptism’ and the Eucharist . . . why? I notice that the emphasis placed on these two practices by evangelical fundamentalists don’t seem to be tied to ‘fore-shadowing’ events in the OT . . . and these practices seem much more perfunctory and ‘lifeless’ as described by fundamentalist evangelicals, quite a contrast to the full sacramental celebration of these events in my own faith . . .
    do I misunderstand? likely, some . . . but a heavy contrast is still noted (rather sadly)

    @ MULE
    thanks for your reply . . . I saw your meaning when I found a reference (so beautiful) for the Theophany liturgy that included this:

    “Troparion (Tone 4)
    Be thou ready, Zabulon; prepare thyself, O Nephthalim. River Jordan, stay thy course and skip for gladness to receive the Sovereign Master, Who cometh now to be baptized. O Adam, be thou glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as ye did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He hath appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ hath appeared, for He truly willeth to renew all creation.

    Kontakion (Tone 4)
    In the running waters of the Jordan River, on this day the Lord of all crieth to John: Be not afraid and hesitate not to baptize Me, for I am come to save Adam, the first-formed man.”


  8. Read the Orthodox services for Holy Theophany, our feast celebrating the Baptism of Christ.

    It is chock-a-block with with just that sort of imagery.


  9. I’m no expert in this Charles. If you are thinking that this is an allegorical interpretation, I would disagree. It also grows out of much more recent discoveries of Ancient Near East literature which have helped us understand the cultural mindset that was the context in which the Israelites lived. But most of all, it takes seriously the place of Genesis in the Torah and Tanakh and the composition of the Hebrew Bible in the time of Exile to help the Jews understand their identity, explain what had happened to them, and give them hope for the future. As Peter Enns says:

    It’s not hard to imagine, then, why the Israelites at this time did some soul searching. They looked back at their ancient past to make sense of the tragedy of their recent history . “In view of all that happened, are we still God’s people ? Does he still care for us? How can we make sure that this doesn’t happen to us again? Will we ever regain the glory of our past?” To address these very real and pressing questions , they began retelling their story— one last time. That last telling became what Christians call the Old Testament.

    Think of the Old Testament as Israel’s story, written in light of national trauma, to encourage continued faithfulness to God.

    (Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible)


  10. Christiane, that’s what John’s baptism was about, and it is why he did it at the Jordan, where Israel first entered the Promised Land. Through John they were returning from Exile to the garden God had given them, preparing for the One who would be to them the Tree of Life.


  11. ‘ . . . there they were, “by the rivers of Babylon,” longing for home’

    I was fascinated the first time I read that in Jewish tradition, Adam continued to ritually bathe in the rivers that flowed out from Eden, thereby maintaining a connection to it . . . and then I learned about the ‘purification’ rituals of the ‘mikvah’ and I remember asking an evangelical Christian if he thought that there was a ‘connection’ between the origin of the ‘mikvah’ tradition and the Christian practice of ‘baptism’ . . .

    he said ‘no’

    but I cannot say that myself, the transcendent imagery is so strong that there must be some element of meaning that ties the two together . . . although I can’t ‘know’ this, but I ‘sense’ it must be meaningful, if only in the hope and the yearning for a cleansing from sin and a returning to God


  12. Bonhoeffer said that “God is the beyond in the midst of life.” God as depicted in the second creation account is this, in the midst of everyday life, coming to Adam and Eve out of the circumstances that surround them and in response to their own actions. He is a God of presence, and encounter. His beyondness walks in the cool breeze of the Garden, and finds Adam and Eve in their imperfections, encountering them in their sin not only as judgment, but as protective concern and constant presence. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

    That old heretic Blake sure produced some astonishingly bracing Biblical art. Of course for Blake, the creation of Adam by the Elohim was the fall from the celestial realm into the physical, which is created and ruled not by the true God and Father of Jesus Christ, but by Satan.


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